Friday, May 3, 2013

FFB: Alarum and Excursion - Virginia Perdue

The special code on the spine and front flap of this 1944 Doubleday Crime Club novel is an exclamation mark indicating that the editors thought it "Something New." The reader should expect a story that deviates from the traditional whodunit, one that offers more than just "A Chess Puzzle" or "Fast Action" or "Humor and Homicide" as the other categories on the rear of the jacket promise. Turning to the inside jacket blurb and reading that it is yet another in a long line of amnesia crime stories should not deter the reader from opening to the first page. Alarum and Excursion is indeed something new in crime fiction; apart from the unusual story it is one of the earliest noir novels from a woman writer of this period.

There are  number of features that make Perdue's book stand out from the rest of the amnesiac crowd. First, her protagonist Nicholas Methany is 62 years old and the CEO of his own oil company. You can probably guess the story is not going to include any action scenes of youthful derring-do. Plus, he has two grown children and a very young wife. Second, the manner in which Methany's memory returns is orchestrated with some of the most original and realistic scenes in a book of this type. He never completely loses his memory, as I expect would happen in a real amnesia situation. Methany can only recall vague moments and envision hazy glimpses of a specific event -- a lab explosion at his firm Seaboard Petroleum that left him injured.

In two of the most cleverly done parts Methany is given modeling clay and he finds himself unconsciously shaping and forming it into a serpent ready to strike. Later he will find an exact replica of that snake in a drawer in his home and it will have great significance to a plot that slowly is revealed to him. In another scene Hero, his wife, puts out her cigarette in an small earthenware container she uses as an ashtray and Methany is instantly taken back to a similar scene in his past. The smell of a perfume, the sound of a voice, the mention of a name -- all of these will jar his broken memory bank and send him into the past, remembering and piecing together his past life to help him explain his present predicament. It's all carefully orchestrated by Perdue and rings true in every instance.

As his memory of the accident gradually returns into full focus Methany learns that two people died and one was most likely murdered. He also learns that the accident was not an accident at all but a plot to undermine the development of a synthetic fuel his firm was about to release. With gasoline in short supply and the US entering the war, Methany is sure his non-petroleum based alternate fuel will be the saving grace for the war effort. He plans to give the formula to the military free of charge or licensing fees. But there are others in his company who disagree with Methany's altruism and see nicoline (the fuel's name) as the means to financial riches if the formula were offered up for sale.

There is a lot to recommend the book: the structure and plot details are imaginative and well thought out, Perdue's muscular prose that walks a fine line between being tough and sentimental, and a cast of unusual minor characters. I will single out Professor Wyndham, a kooky paleontologist locked up at the Crestview mental institution where Methany is recuperating, who walks three steps forward and one back, talks about life on Mars and Mercury and helps Methany in a daring escape.  Much later in the book we meet the crude saloon piano player, Beulah Westmore, who has some vital information about Methany's son's involvement in the lab explosion and why it happened.

As each characters' true nature is revealed the novel ventures further into the realm of noir. The strange relationship between Hero, her ex-con father Charley Van Norman, and Methany becomes one of seedy corruption , self-interest and base greed. The finale is as dark as any noir of the 1950s. And the last paragraph is one guaranteed to induce a gasp of awe in any reader. I know let loose with a "Wow!" before I closed the book.

SIDEBAR: In an attempt to learn more about Virginia Perdue I discovered that she had a special relationship with Robert Heinlein. According to The Heinlein Society website in the 1930s Perdue and Heinlein were friends. She was instrumental in giving the science fiction writer advice on submitting his manuscripts to mainstream magazines, not just the pulps, and encouraged him to write novels. Heinlein's second wife also believed that the relationship went a bit deeper than just writers helping each other out with their careers. A feature article on Perdue (rather than the two paragraphs I found) was supposed to appear in an issue of The Heinlein Journal, but I was unable to find it.

10 comments:

  1. John, from where do you dig up these authors and books? Another one to add to my over-flowing Books That I MUST Search For.

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    1. I read a lot of reference books and make notes of the critics' best books. This is yet another of the "Top 50 Mysteries" picked by Jacques Barzun & Wendell Taylor in their bibliographic survey A Catalog of Crime. And as usual they found a good one.

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  2. Another great find, John. Certainly seems to be worthy of a return to print. Given the motivation for the crime, I was interested to see that that the novel had been released as an Armed Services Edition.

    I too let loose a "Wow!" recently - when finishing Sol Allen's Toronto Doctor - but for entirely different reasons.

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  3. Fascinating. This one has now zoomed on to my must- read list. Thanks for the great review.

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  4. To me the end has to be worth the journey, and you made it sound like this one is, thus it is on my to be read list now.

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  5. Wow, John. And that's just from reading your review. From what you say, the handling of the amnesia does sound way more realistic than your average amnesia story. Of course, you know that I immediately latched on to "Professor Wyndham, a kooky paleontologist locked up at the Crestview mental institution where Methany is recuperating, who walks three steps forward and one back, talks about life on Mars and Mercury and helps Methany in a daring escape." Mention a professor and I'm all agog. :-)

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  6. Sounds good, John. Thanks for the intro to yet another writer I'm not familiar with. But I like the idea of the story. I like amnesia plots. Though I can't remember ever reading one.

    It's true. :)

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    1. Did you steal line that from Henny Youngman, Yvette? ;^)

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  7. A google search on the book brought me to your wonderful review. This now forgotten novel was a bestseller in it's day and apparently one movie producer thought it had potential to be a movie. I have been reading old movie trade newspapers online and the October 19 1944 edition of The Film Daily reports that producer Sol Lesser (best known for "Stage Door Canteen" and the forties Tarzan films) purchased the novel to be developed into a film.

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    1. Thanks for that movie trivia, Rob. I love learning that kind of stuff. It should've been made. Someone ought to adapt it now. It's very timely these days -- a clever writer could take the subplot about the alternate fuel and run with it making the movie very resonant for modern audiences even while retaining the WW2 setting.

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